Thelonious Monk's discography is a nightmare for jazz archivists and casual listeners alike, so let me first parse this one out as best I can. The harmlessly titled Thelonious Monk Trio
is Monk's first studio album proper, coming off the heels of his two Genius of Modern Music
compilations (Volume One released in '51, Volume Two a year later) for Blue Note. It's been re-released countless times--sometimes as Monk's Mood
, but usually with its original 1954 title intact--on different formats, once in a while with its tracklist shuffled. (The original order, and my favorite, opens with “Little Rootie Tootie”.)
All that said, this album is well worth seeking out, regardless of the form in which you find it. Its historical interest for the devoted Monk fan is, of course, off the charts--it contains the first recorded renditions of the eternal “Blue Monk” as well as “Bemsha Swing”--but its true merit lies in the performance and composition of the man behind it, who is brought to the fore as a personality in ways not matched even on his later and more famous masterpieces. That's partly why I love “Little Rootie Tootie” as the opener; the bleating, dissonant chords we first hear serve as a fitting introduction to an album all about Monk's idiosyncrasies. The track is pure Thelonious, its mindbending melodies (try to hum along!) propped up with deeply rooted, yet equally idiosyncratic, drumming by Art Blakey. “Bye-Ya,” with Max Roach on drums, is even better. Though Roach's creative tick-tack percussion may err on the heavy side for me, Monk carries it with one of the best and bounciest melodies he ever wrote--and even if not up your alley, the song is over in less than three minutes and followed by the equally great and peculiar “Monk's Dream”.
Compared with knottier LPs like 1957's Brilliant Corners
(five tracks in 42 minutes), Thelonious Monk Trio
could be considered Monk's “pop” album, at a lean 35 minutes and with only one cut extending past the four-minute mark. Indeed, even when Monk gets nutty, as on the brutally virtuosic “Trinkle, Tinkle,” the album's appeal lies not in his “sabotage” of popular music but his ability to turn it into something invigoratingly weird, two approaches often conflated when looking back on the work of an inventive musician. The album is catchy and brisk almost in spite of itself, Monk always seeming to right his own course when the proceedings get out of hand, as they often do. This means that Thelonious Monk Trio
is in essence a sort of tightrope act, a painstaking balance between not only “pop” and “experimental” but between the odd and the comforting, the unhinged and the stable. Monk may have gone on to record more ambitious albums--perhaps even better ones--but never would he perfect that balance quite like he does here.